People in the industry who know and love Mary Harger - Retail Jewelers Organization’s longtime Director of Vendor Services - are finding it bittersweet to send her into retirement.
Mary herself is a little uncomfortable with all of the attention. “I was just doing my job,” she says. “So many memories and fun things happened in our office over the years.
“I want everyone to know, I have worked with the best team of women anyone could ask for. We are a family; we are friends; we watch out for each other. You don’t get that everywhere you work. Twelve women have kept RJO going on an everyday basis; leadership committees have supported them and made them feel they have worth. You can’t ask for much more.
“I never want anyone to say to those who have taken over my jobs, ‘Mary didn’t do it that way.’ These women are smart, and I told them to make these jobs their own. I didn’t have a teacher; I had to muddle through and figure it out, and now they have the base to work from. They will find easier and better ways to do things with all the technology we now have available.”
Mary says she believes her greatest accomplishment is simply staying at RJO for 28-plus years, “learning all the technology which became so essential to daily operations.”
Developing reports and programs to make things easier has been an important task. “We hand-posted all accounts when I started,” Mary says. “Information to the vendors and retail members was mailed; now everything is done on the computer. Members can access and pay their accounts on our website. We can get information out in a matter of minutes and reach over 200 vendors and over 1,000 retail stores. When I started, we had approximately 90 vendors and 239 retail members.”
Asked how her personality and background have been a good fit for the job, Mary says she’s a stickler for detail. “That’s the accounting side of me, but I also understand we are human, and people make mistakes. The great thing is, everything can be fixed; don’t stress it. I pride myself on being fair, especially when it came to placing vendors in the exhibit hall. Some weren’t always happy with me, but I was fair and could justify the placement. I took accounting courses and data entry courses at our area community college, so I have been able to understand why things are done the way they are done in our customized system.”
Retirement will be bittersweet for Mary, as well. “I will miss seeing my work friends and the interaction on a daily basis. I am going to miss working on and going to shows. This is where my heart is and always will be part of who I am.” However, she’s looking forward to: “No. 1, not setting an alarm clock. I’m sure I will still wake up at the same time every day, just not to an alarm clock. No. 2, starting a project any day of the week and not stressing stopping it because I have to go to work. I have lots of projects on my list. No. 3, once my husband decides to retire, spending more time taking short trips. We aren’t big travelers, but short trips are fun.”
Send-Off in Houston
Among the great group of co-workers Mary referred to is Sarah Streb, RJO’s CEO who has worked with Mary 18 years. At Mary’s retirement celebration at RJO’s winter buying show in Houston in January, Sarah offered some fond memories and insights. Here are some excerpts from her presentation:
It is a very special night tonight as we celebrate the retirement of one of RJO’s finest, Mary Harger . . .
Mary was born on Jan. 4, 1949, in Newton, Iowa, where she has lived all her life except for a brief period she spent in Burlington, Iowa. Growing up, her passion was roller skating, an activity she did five days a week . . . Mary met the love of her life, Don, in 1963 and married after his return from the Navy in 1969. Just last week, they celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary . . .
As we take a look at Mary’s professional career, after high school and her stint at the skating rink, Mary worked on the Travel Training Team for Kings Food Host Restaurants and traveled to different states training new staff before they opened. There was an opportunity to move to Burlington at a new Kings Food Host there and Mary jumped at the opportunity with a couple of friends from Newton. While in Burlington, in order to make extra money, Mary started another position at an ammunition plant making ammunition and other military items. Mary’s main job was making land mines, but she was loaned to other areas within the plant. She had shared a story with me at one time she was loaned to the grenade division. Grenades went around on a carousel, where an arm came down and put in the pin. One night, the arm also pulled out the pin activating the grenade; they had to evacuate QUICKLY, the grenade exploded and ruined the carousel. She has always said that was quite the interesting job.
When she returned to Newton and during the time she was working part-time jobs so she could be home with the (three) kids, Mary started taking accounting and punch card programming courses as time permitted. She worked for the Newton School System as the Maintenance Department Secretary, worked for a local attorney and then, she has said, the best thing happened. A friend of her daughter was working for a company called RJO Inc. Most people in Newton, to this day, don’t know what RJO stands for, and back then, Mary was in the same boat. But, they had an opening and she was encouraged to apply because it was a position working with numbers, and she loved working with numbers. That was in June of 1991 and she hasn’t looked back.
Since her 28 years with RJO, she has held many different positions. She started as the front desk receptionist and found time to help with posting invoices. She managed the inventory and shipping of job envelopes and Zippo lighters when they used to be sent out of the RJO office and then started working more and more with Ed Bacon and Bob Morrissey on vendor contracts. As she took on a bigger role with vendor contracts and the Merchandise Review Committee, she started helping with vendor show planning.
So, after 57 RJO buying shows, traveling across the country planning them, hundreds of Merchandise Review Committee meetings, executing hundreds of vendor agreements, going through them with a fine-tooth comb to ensure their accuracy and working closely with our vendor members, Mary is retiring as the Director of Vendor Services.
Mary has said RJO has become a part of her heart and soul. I like to think she is a huge part of RJO’s heart and soul. When I started at RJO some 18 years ago, the staff had no idea I was coming. When I walked in the door - although she was incredibly surprised by her new co-worker - she jumped into action. She welcomed me with open arms and had a desk set up (from her always replenished and precisely stocked stash of office supplies) within the hour . . .
Mary has been able to be incredibly successful in her position at RJO because of her innate fairness and unwavering support of RJO’s policies and procedures. Her incredible wealth of knowledge has helped guide so many of those policies and procedures that are in effect today. She treats all vendors equally and at times has had to make tough decisions because she knew they were right, and she could proudly stand behind them.
Our director of security, Kenny Mullins, has said having to say goodbye to someone like Mary Harger is not an easy task. Working with RJO, he has come to expect certain normals. Mary watches over buying floor operations with an iron fist. If someone has a complaint Mary hears it, gets to the root of the problem and no matter how small, she makes sure it is corrected. He stated he has, more than once, witnessed a vendor, a tad bit frustrated, attempt to take that frustration out on Mary who quickly quelled their anger and came up with an immediate solution . . .
And I do need to add here, Mary has been an incredible teacher to both Ali (Groves) and Sabrina (Smead), preparing them to take on her responsibilities. From pages upon pages of instructions, guides and how-to’s, Mary has equipped her replacements with everything they need through detailed diligence, support and love.
Sean Hoffert, with our decorator Paramount, has worked with Mary for nearly 20 years. He shared, the first time he met Mary she scared him a little bit. As he was waiting to get introduced to her, she was in the middle of giving her opinion to the building event manager on a few things she was not happy about. I think everyone in this room knows what that means. He told himself he was just going to say please and thank you, yes ma’am and no ma’am’, and keep his distance. Four days later they were dancing together to a Beatles cover band and he has loved her ever since . . .
In preparing this speech, a lot of tears were shed because, I don’t know an RJO without Mary. She has been my sounding board, my biggest cheerleader and shown me such dedicated and loyal support over the years. She is my work mom . . . I am going to miss her terribly.
Wishes have poured in to Mid-America Jewelry News and Southern Jewelry News from others, as well.
Aubre Ford, RDI Diamonds: Mary is “one of the most gracious, kind, amazing people that I’ve met through my experiences in the jewelry industry. The first few RJO shows for me were very hard to position myself, and she was there to point me in the right direction as she always is for everyone!”
Ed Waters, Kelly Waters Inc.: “Kelly Waters has been attending the RJO show for 30 years now, and Mary has been there for 28 of them. From day one, she was always the go-to person whenever I had any questions or needed help with anything. One of the easiest people to work with. I wish her the best in retirement. She will be missed.”
Konrad Darling, Darling Imports: Mary “has always taken care of me and has always been such a pleasure to work with at the shows and through the year. I did always enjoy her cutting up at the Sunday night RJO function!”
Stefanie Wesdorp, Jewel-Craft Inc.: “It was an honor to listen every time she spoke. Mary offered the opportunity to learn something with everyone she crossed paths with.”
Elesa Dillon, Southern Jewelry News and Mid-America Jewelry News: “I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Mary for nearly her entire career at RJO. Her contributions to RJO’s vendor community will be sorely missed. While Mary will be missed by us here at SJN and MAJN - and by all of the RJO vendors - she certainly deserves her retirement. It has been a pleasure working with Mary, and while I’m saddened to see her retire, I’m certain she’ll find the same success and happiness in her retirement years.”